The Republican presidential field for the 2012 presidential election will be on full display this evening, as CNN airs the second nationally televised candidate debate, this one from the early-voting state of New Hampshire. Since the first debate was a little light on heavyweight candidates, this is the first chance a lot of Republican primary voters will have to assess the biggest names in the race.
All the major candidates will be participating tonight, with the exception of Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry, and Sarah Palin. Perry and Palin may not even be candidates -- neither has committed to running as of yet, even as speculation abounds over whether they'll jump in or not. Most observers expect Huntsman to announce very soon now, but he has taken a pass on tonight's debate.
But for those folks who haven't been paying much attention, we're going to run down the lists of contenders, loosely grouped in my own arbitrary categories. As always, the names within the categories are presented in alphabetical order, to avoid any showing of favoritism in placement.
The overall weakness of the Republican field has led to a prolonged period of Republican opinion-makers wishing for a "white horse" to ride in and save the day. The last time we took a look at who was being mentioned, the names Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Paul Ryan were being batted around.
At this point, these four seem to be talked about less and less, as the focus of the white horse wishfulness shifts to two others. Now, Rudy Giuliani isn't exactly being begged to run by large numbers of Republican elites, due mostly to his poor showing in the 2008 primary contest. But his poll numbers are pretty impressive lately, and the rumor is that he's seriously considering another presidential run.
The second possible white horse moves up from the "dark horse" category last time around. Rick Perry is being seriously considered (and seriously sought after) at this point, especially since two of the high-profile campaign staffers who just quit Newt Gingrich's campaign are former Perry consultants. In other words, if Perry jumps in quickly, he'll have a professional campaign team ready to go right away.
Giuliani is the more well-known of the two, meaning he may have more latitude to wait a few more weeks before declaring his intentions. But with the off-scenes "money race" tightening up among big Republican donors, both Perry and Giuliani are going to have to declare their intentions within the next month or so, to have a real shot at winning.
The list of candidates (declared or not) who, realistically, have almost no chance of winning even a single primary -- much less the Republican nomination -- hasn't changed much from last time. In fact, it's exactly the same list, except that Rick Perry moved up to the white horse category. For completeness' sake, the "other" Republicans in the race (whom very few Republican voters are going to even hear about, much less vote for) are:
John Bolton, Gary Johnson, Fred Karger, Andy Martin, Jimmy McMillan, Roy Moore, Buddy Roemer.
The "B" Team
Which brings us to our biggest category -- the "B" team.
Since this is being written before the debate actually commences, there are people listed here who may indeed break out of the pack and vault themselves into frontrunner status tonight. All of them will likely be trying to accomplish this feat, but not all of them are likely to pull it off. And one in particular will be trying hardest, since it may be the last chance his campaign has of retaining any sort of relevancy. In other words, the next time we write one of these columns, this list will likely look different, but for now it is jam-packed with possibilities. Let's take them one at a time.
Michele Bachmann -- Bachmann has not, to the best of my knowledge, even formally announced her candidacy yet. But when she does, it is going to come as no surprise to anyone. Bachmann has been trying to differentiate herself from Sarah Palin, and tonight's debate will be a good place to do so, since Palin won't be on the stage. Bachmann's biggest chance (if reports are true) will be in Iowa, so look for her to play to a nationwide audience tonight, rather than a local New Hampshire one.
Herman Cain -- Cain is still riding the wave of interest he generated in the previous debate, and his polling numbers have actually broken into the double-digits of late, although not consistently -- but still, this is more than a lot of the "B" team can currently claim. Look for him to attempt to increase his name recognition and continue to capitalize on a format he does well in with the Republican primary voters. If he can generate a second polling bump after tonight, he could even approach frontrunner status -- something few would have predicted of him before the first debate.
Newt Gingrich -- Newt Gingrich has had a tough month since he announced his campaign. His first disastrous "rollout" week was followed immediately by Gingrich and his wife taking off for a two-week Mediterranean cruise. Newt also skipped a Memorial Day event in an early primary state to stay in D.C. and attend the opera. Way to show off your "man of the people" credibility, Newt! He was also the only major candidate not to visit the major yearly convention of social conservatives in person, sending a video instead. You can see why his whole campaign team got so frustrated with him that, en masse, they walked out.
Newt is now desperately clinging to relevancy, and tonight may be his last chance to prove he's serious about his run for the presidency. At this point, almost the entire media establishment has written his chances off entirely, but then the same thing happened to John McCain four years ago, so that's no indication of anything, really. But we did have to move Newt down from the "frontrunner" category this time, because he simply can't be considered such anymore. He may claw his way back, beginning tonight in a format he thinks will allow him to shine; but then again, he may not, and the whole exercise may just have been a way for him to sell his books and promote his new movie.
Jon Huntsman -- For some reason, Jon Huntsman hasn't officially announced his run yet. This is a bit strange, because outside of Utah and the Washington Beltway, nobody knows who he is. Candidates with such low name recognition normally enter the race as soon as they possibly can, in order to introduce themselves to the voters. Not only is Huntsman staying out, for now, but he's also skipping the debate tonight. Maybe he's being crafty like a fox, and waiting until some of the other second-tier candidates implode, or maybe he isn't all that serious about running. In any case, the window for him to enter the race (and still have a plausible chance of winning it) may be closing soon for Huntsman, whether he realizes it or not.
Ron Paul -- Roughly a month ago, Paul climbed into the double digits in the polling, but since that point has fallen back to his core group of supporters (in the single digits, in other words). Paul may have a good chance tonight to please the crowd, as his brand of Libertarianism is likely a better match for flinty New Englanders than other parts of the Republican primary map. Paul will likely try tonight to differentiate himself from the pack on the foreign policy front, as getting America out of its various wars is actually a pretty popular idea right now. Whether that translates into any support outside his core base remains to be seen, though.
Tim Pawlenty -- Tim Pawlenty desperately wants to be considered a frontrunner in the race. He desperately wants the mantle of the "I'm not Romney" candidate. Washington pundits have already awarded him this status, however the voters are noticeably lukewarm to a Pawlenty candidacy. His polling numbers fall behind both Herman Cain and Ron Paul in almost every recent poll. He's only broken into double digits once, since polling started for this race. That's a pretty disappointing performance for someone who is supposed to be (theoretically) one of the frontrunners at this point. So Pawlenty's got a lot to gain in tonight's debate. Look for him to be as outrageous as possible in the hopes of making some sort of mark for himself -- offering up ready-made soundbites in the hopes of some widespread media attention to boost his name recognition. This task is made harder by the other, more extreme candidates in the debate -- any one of whom may offer up even more extreme soundbites than Pawlenty can manage.
Rick Santorum -- Speaking of extreme soundbites, Rick Santorum will also be desperately vying for the media's attention tonight. Pawlenty's poll numbers are bad, but Santorum's are even worse -- only breaking 5 percent in a single poll since the campaign began. However, that poll (where Santorum charted in at 6 percent) was the most recent one, so perhaps he is seeing some movement already. Look for Santorum to try to stand out on social issues, which he feels is his strongest point. He'll also be speaking mostly to a national audience in the debates, since such social conservatism isn't as big a deal for New Hampshire Republicans.
Which brings us to the frontrunners. There are only two, at this point, and nobody even knows if one of them is going to run or not. Such is the state of the Republican nomination race in June of 2011. As mentioned above, Newt Gingrich was previously in this category, but after his disastrous first month campaigning, few would argue that he can still be seen as any sort of frontrunner for the nomination. A lot of the "B" team folks would argue that they, too are frontrunners, but none of them (at this point) have a consistent record of polling behind them to bear this claim out. Of course, that may all change after tonight's debate (I'd be personally surprised if at least one of the secondary team didn't move up in the next week or so).
Sarah Palin -- Sarah Palin had lots of fun on her recent bus tour of the East Coast, not least of which was stomping all over the campaign news any of the other Republican candidates were trying to make. Rumor has it that the bus trip is a kind of "test run" for Palin's family, to see whether they're up for a full-blown nationwide campaign. But it's hard to see Palin's immediate family having the same sort of veto power over her decision to run as Mitch Daniels' family exercised. I've been saying all along that Palin is the one candidate in the Republican field who has the luxury of staying out almost as long as she wants before jumping into the campaign, due to the fact that everybody already knows her name (and also due to the nation's political media breathlessly following anything Sarah does or says, at any time or place whatsoever).
The recent release of over 24,000 pages of emails from when Palin was governor doesn't seem to have hurt her at all (despite many pouring through them last weekend, no "smoking gun" was found). Although Palin isn't going to physically be present at tonight's debate, she will definitely be a presence in the room -- especially for those candidates attempting to wield the "Tea Party candidate" banner themselves. Look for Palin to toy with her decision on running for at least another few months before she actually makes up her mind. Her performance on Fox News Sunday a few weeks ago certainly seemed like that of a presidential candidate and not a political gadfly, but whether she'll actually throw her hat in the ring or not is still anyone's guess at this point.
Mitt Romney -- Romney is without question the frontrunner the other candidates will be looking to take down in tonight's debate. Because this will be Romney's first debate appearance, political observers are going to be closely watching how intensely the others attack him and his positions, and how Romney responds to such attacks. The thing Romney's got going for him is that he would likely be the best Republican candidate in a general election against Barack Obama. Polling shows he's got the best chance of appearing moderate enough to independent voters to win the election in 2012. Paradoxically, this is his weakest point in the Republican primaries -- in a season where adherence to Tea Party orthodoxy may carry more weight than general election "electability." But the fact that all the other candidates in the field are trying to position themselves as the "not Romney" candidate makes it crystal clear that Romney is, at this point in time, the one to beat in the Republican field. Look for Romney to strongly defend his positions tonight, while at the same time couching those positions in as moderate terms as he thinks he can get away with in front of a Republican audience.
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